[Review] - The Martian

Courtesy of 20th Century FOX
The Martian was my favourite book of last year. I've said this so many times now, regular readers probably just threw a shoe at their screen (which is an over reaction really. Just click off to something else. Geez, guys...). And the fact is, an adaptation of a beloved book is a dichotomous event to any lover of the original work. Either it will live up to expectations, or it won't. Sometimes, if you are very lucky, the adapters find some granual of untapped experience that allows the adaptation to work in conjunction with the original rather than against it. I have been very hopeful of the Martian since it went into production. It had a solid cast, all of whom fit pretty exactly with how I pictured the characters when I read the novel. It has good pedigree behind the camera, even if Ridley Scott's output of late has been inconsistent at best. And it is hitting at the right moment, when there is a thirst for hard science driven fiction, as exemplified by the recent releases of Gravity and Interstellar.

The good news is, the Martian is good. Quite good actually. It fails to make the same impact as Gravity, emotionally or cinematically. And it strip mines the novels for the best action while largely discarding the science that makes that action possible and tense. It is also overly long and poorly paced. However, bolstered by some excellent performances, flawless CGI and great action, the film is a love letter to human progress and spirit, regardless of danger. But it's greatest achievement is being relentlessly optimistic, philosophically and tonally, and that alone makes it a rarity in the modern sphere.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that want to be called "Glorfindel".


What I won't spend the remainder of this review doing is comparing the film to the novel. that isn't fair to either, as each much exist independent of one another. the novel must stand of it's own, as must the film, without having to refer to one another for a complete experience. But I will begin by saying that the film is a passable abridgment of a densely packed and yet very streamlined narrative. The movie makes heavy cuts, and much needed changes in making the transition from page to screen. Much of what was lost was necessary to prevent the film from simply being a lecture. Unfortunately, this means that much of the detail of the science is completely absent from the film, which was the greatest joy of the book. Because the novel was presented from the first person perspective of Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon), the book was literally his thought process as he moved from one problem to another, fixing each in turn. In the movie, problems get fixed in montages rather than explanations. And what you loose is an appreciation for how he is able to fix these problems, but they also don't seem like problems in the film. In the book, Mark struggles. In the film, everything just seems to work out. Even when things go horribly wrong, they never seem to be that bad.

Now, we come to the major issue of the film. It isn't that suspenseful. The climax is, in a change from how things ended in the book, but the rest of the movie suffers from the fact that it lacks any sense of real danger. Which is bizarre. The whole movie should be dripping with tension. He is utterly alone, survival is beyond a consideration, every element of his surroundings can fail at any minute and kill him instantly, he has limited resources, and no hope of immediate relief and a slim hope of survival. And yet, it never really feels like he's in that much danger. The problem is, Watney is capable. But because of the movie's tendency to reduce struggle to montage, and to routinely skip over days or weeks (or months), a problem presents itself, then the films skips to when Watney has fixed it. And everything gets fixed. Nothing, even the most catastrophic event, presents a real danger. There is always a work around, and it all seems to come easily. The film streamlines Watney's time on Mars, whittling the dangers down to a couple major events rather than the constant barrage of hazards that the novel throws at him, and while thematically one or two big things is easier to keep track of than a dozen little ones, it would have presented better if we had seen his struggle once or twice, to give the film some gravitas. My expectation was more in line with 127 Hours, focusing on the isolation and minutia of decision, and the weight that those decisions carried. But the end result was too breezy to be considered suspenseful.

The problem, which isn't restricted to the Martian, but to most hard space science films, is that there is no sense of distance and there is no sense of isolation. Watney is meant to be alone, but it rarely feels that way. Especially once he finds a way to communicate with NASA, despite the distance between Earth and Mars, Mark never seems to be that alone. A big deal is made of characters talking as they type, but bizarrely, this also leads to scenes where two different characters read the same message back to back. I suspect this was to showcase the different tones and emotional states in which the characters received the messages, but mostly it just felt like narration. The communication is near instantaneous, despite reminders that it takes nearly half an hour round trip for a message to be received and answered, another element that could have been used to add tension, but instead is disregarded in favour of having things move briskly. The side effect of moving things briskly is that, yet again, Mark never seems that bad off. Yes, he's along, but he can talk to Earth quite easily, or the crew of the Hermes, plus he's got all that disco music and seventies TV. The book was optimistic because it used a firm understanding of the scientific method to overcome insurmountable odds, but danger and psychological unraveling hung over his head at every turn. The movie is so optimistic, it never really explores the darker side of Watney's situation. There are many scenes where long odds are described, and more than a few whee things go wrong, but these are short term set backs, with no long term effects. The ramifications of listening to that much ABBA or running out of ketchup are never explored in favour of keeping things light.

Despite all this, the film also lags considerably. It's a solid half hour too long, and I read earlier this week that Scott has a longer cut ready for DVD. It doesn't need it. It needs a good pruning, and despite all my misgivings about leaving out the science, the scenes that needed to go were all the redundant explaining scenes. The film is marred by characters - all space experts, mathematicians, physicists, and generally smart people - explaining things to one another using props, like salt shakers and staplers. These Doc Brown's Chalkboard scenes grind the film to a halt, because folks in the midwest need things spelled out for them. Or at least, that's the assumption that is always made when dealing with real science. It's a hilarious bit of condensation: take your average sci-fi or fantasy concept, and most movies just let the audience figure it out through immersion. But if real science is involved, even a writer like Drew Goddard feels the need to become Bill Nye. And these scenes, of people explaining things to one another so the audience will know what is going on, plague the second and third acts. the introduction of NASA to the narrative shouldn't be the thing that slows the film down, it should be the thing that kicks it into gear. I feel that Goddard should have focused more on Watney and his situation, and allowed NASA to feel as remote and largely incapable of helping to the audience as it was meant to feel to Watney. Instead, Earth never feels remote or out of reach to Watney because we are constantly returning to it.

That being said, the film is still a solid piece of space science appreciation. It gets plenty of opportunities to make points about the wonder of the human condition, and the drive to explore. Watney states that if he dies, he dies happy knowing he contributed to something bigger and more important to himself. It's all the good old fashioned human endeavor stuff that audiences have soaked up since Kennedy and the original Star Trek series (a reasonable argument could be made that The Martian is the best Star Trek movie they've never made). And it's all anchored by a pitch perfect performance from Damon. He supports the weight of the movie, as he should, though the film should be calling on him to support more emotions. That is a failing of the script, not the performance, and there are more than enough opportunities for Damon to show off his range (the one that stuck with me was his terror during a wind storm in the night after he patched the HUB with duck tape). Mostly though, he's think-splaining things to us, and being a sarcastic ass. Which is great, it is what makes Watney an appealing protagonist; he's an everyman. the sort of witty, calm under pressure super science survivor that everyone wishes they would be if the same happened to them (we wouldn't. We'd cry and poop in the corner until the freeze dried rice ran out).

Likewise, the majority of the rest of the cast does well enough with what they have to do. The film makes the bold choice of not amalgamating characters, thus preserving the scope of a space mission, but it also results in a lot of characters that do one thing, then hang around an increasingly crowded room while new people are introduced to do their one thing. The main focus is split between Watney, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetal Ejiofor) and Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels). Of these, only Watney and Kapoor get any sort of definition and emotional depth. Lewis is vindicated in the third act by benefit of Chastain's talent and some changes to the novel, but we don't spend enough time with her to really get to sympathize with her. She is reduced to standard action movie heroics, which is more than the rest of the crew, who are all given information abilities and personalities, and little to do. We spend a lot of time with Sanders, but Daniels seems oddly disconnected, and his performance is the one sour apple in the bunch. We know from his filmography that Daniels has amazing range, and he brings none of that here. His character's one emotional outburst is as bland as the rest of the performance.

Then there is the look. This film looks amazing. The Martian landscape is a feast for the eyes, and the native 3D isn't wasted on gimmicks like things swooping by the camera, but instead on giving Mars a sense of distance. There is a whole lot of planet, it's all empty desert, and Watney is a speck in the sand. And space doesn't look half bad either. The Hermes is a beautiful craft, probably the best looking "real world" space ship put to film. The scenes on the ship do a great job jumping between stimulated gravity and weightlessness, which is executed with as much skill as you'd hope in the wake of Gravity (I told you back then that it would become the standard for all the followed). The real hero of the film is the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, who uses the camera in exactly the right way. Scott's framing and use of empty space is great, and recalls his early career, when he didn't feel the need to cram every inch of the field with visual noise. The Martian is a film that allows you to absorb the magnitude of the situation, if not allowing you to experience it.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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